Bistro Bizarre

Viva's Bistro is a restaurant that can't seem to decide what it wants to be

J.D. Fitzgerald
Burger and fries.

Viva's Bistro is a juxtaposition of elements: tablecloths and beer pong tournaments; nachos and tiramisu; combination restaurant, sports bar, nightclub, karaoke bar, dance club. Identity is the core feature of success in the restaurant industry: Pick a concept and be the absolute best at it that you can be. Rarely does the mishmash "little bit of everything" approach work when it comes to dining and foodservice.

The location, just off Grant Road east of Campbell Avenue, has never been touted as a great restaurant location, but that's not to say it doesn't hold the possibility of success. Parking is an issue, and Viva's allows their employees to take all of the parking spots near the door (as evidenced by the fact that they were all full, and yet we were the only patrons in the establishment, on both occasions). The interior is somewhere between industrial discotheque — with concrete floors, minimalist décor and tons of dance-floor style speakers mounted on the ceiling — sports bar, with several TVs around the place, tuned to sports (but the audio didn't ever match the TVs)—and almost-upscale dining establishment, with upholstered benches, tablecloths, and the chic glass bar.

The menu is just as confusing, featuring everything from nachos; or a giant appetizer enchilada; all the way to a white wine fish filet served with rice pilaf and crispy asparagus; tiramisu and a whole bunch of things somewhere in between. To add to the inconsistencies, the food ranged from absolutely excellent to completely inedible, and the service was consistently awful, but the servers were all extremely friendly. There's a full bar with no dedicated bartender, and no drink list or drink menu, beer list or wine list. There's no rhyme or reason as to the timing of your food order—entrées come before appetizers, but not always, drinks don't always make it to the table before food does.

First, the edible: the sweet chili "changas" ($6), described as marinated chicken, tortilla wrap, and sweet chili glaze, was delicious. I'm not sure what I was exactly expecting, but it's a long, skinny roll of juicy chicken, wrapped up in a flour tortilla and deep-fried, chimichanga-style, topped with an Asian-style sweet chili sauce. Yum, and beautifully presented. Toritos were also delicious, and creatively plated, with the cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped (super duper spicy) peppers grilled and presented upright, tips resting in a small bowl of soy sauce. The steak panini ($12) was delicious, though nothing close to as described on the menu. It's supposed to be a mesquite-grilled steak with pesto, tomatoes and Roquefort cheese. There was definitely grilled steak, and tomatoes. Otherwise it tasted more like a chimichurri than a pesto, and there was no hint of that signature tang of blue cheese Roquefort. Rather than a traditional panini, it was served on two grilled pitas. However, despite the inconsistencies with the menu description, it was absolutely delish, and the smoked paprika fries ($2 for a side) were perfectly crispy, fluffy, smoky and salty. The sweet potato fries were also heavenly. The tacos ($3 each, choice of chicken, al pastor, or carne asada) were tasty, but equally portioned to other restaurants that serve street-style tacos at half the price.

Now, the inedible: the Viva burger and fries ($8) went completely uneaten. The brioche bun was soft and yielding, the veggies fresh, but the thin, dry burger patty was cooked to an absolute hockey puck, and the tequila sauce lacked in both flavor and viscosity enough to improve the burger. It was terrible. The chicken wings ($8), came out absolutely ice cold, soggy from sitting, and the "regular" buffalo flavor would have been way too spicy for an unsuspecting consumer looking for traditional buffalo wings. We ordered blue cheese with them, but they came with ranch. For the price, you only get six wings (that's roughly $1.33 PER WING, for those who aren't math-inclined). The farfalle vodka sauce pasta ($12) was a complete disappointment. The pasta was overcooked mush, the shrimp were gritty and not deveined, the sauce lacked any distinguishing flavor, it came out cold, and it was missing the garlic bread. It's also a pretty tiny portion for a $12 pasta dish.

Service was just as bizarre. On both visits, halfway through the meal, our server simply disappeared and never returned, without letting us know that the shift had ended, and it took the new server nearly 15 minutes on both occasions to come to the table. There were never any introductions, and the staff didn't appear to know the menu, since I was asked both on the steak panini and the farfalle pasta dish, what kind of meat I would like, despite it being clearly outlined on the menu. We attempted to order the toritos on the first visit, but the order never got put in. Drinks, including water and drinks from the bar, are ordered and then take 10-plus minutes to get to the table. Hot food sits in the speed-window for an inordinate amount of time while servers do things like clear tables and sweep floors. In one instance, the single cook in the kitchen had to stop cooking and bring out the food to our table. There seems to be no order in which food is input into the kitchen, and no order in which the cook decides to prepare it.

Perhaps if Viva's can pick an identity and stick with it, they'll succeed—but there are a lot of obstacles to overcome.

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